THE SAFEST PLACE ON EARTH
Where People Connect and Are Forever Changed
Word Publishing, 1999, 238 pp.
It is difficult to articulate what Spiritual community really is and how to achieve it. Larry Crabb, a licensed psychotherapist and professor at Colorado Christian University, paints a picture of what the church can be. The fundamental idea behind this book is “a growing conviction that all substantial change depends on people experiencing a certain kind of relationship.” (45) Aided by diagrams and discussion questions, he describes how genuine spiritual community relates to our fallenness and brokenness, our problems and pain. I found it a bit mystical and obscure.
The theme of the book is the largely untapped power of spiritual community to change lives. The three sections deal with thinking about spiritual community, understanding why spiritual community is best suited to help us in our struggles, and developing a way of relating. (xv)
“Why is spiritual community—‘church’—high on so many people’s list as a major spiritual problem?” (vii) “Even when a few of us gather together to relate, do we somehow manage to keep our souls to ourselves…?” “We all play it safe because none of us feel safe in the group—not really.” “Churches are rarely communities.” (xiii)
“Neither the goal toward which we’re aiming (exactly what does it mean to be whole, to be mature?) nor the process of getting there is clearly understood by anyone.” (3)
“A central task of community is to create a place that is safe enough for the walls to be torn down, safe enough for each of us to own and reveal our brokenness.” “Only then can community be used of God to restore our souls.” (11)
“The church is a community of people on a journey to God.” (21) “You were put here to reflect the character of God in the way you live, to pour out His life through yours toward whomever you’re with, however they treat you.” (24)
“The passion to protect ourselves, to keep our wounds out of sight where no one can make them worse, is the strongest passion in our hearts.” “In unspiritual community, we make certain we are safe from people and never enjoy safety with people.” (35)
“Brokenness is the realization that life is too much for us, not just because there is too much pain but also because we’re too selfish. Brokenness is realizing He is all we have. Hope is realizing He is all we need. Joy is realizing He is all we want.” (39)
“We can’t deal with conflict any more than a man with a dollar can buy a house.” We don’t have what it takes. In unspiritual community, we hide conflict behind congeniality, cooperation on manageable projects, consoling relationships, counseling relationships and conforming. (40-1)
“I believe the root of all non-medical human struggle is really a spiritual problem, a disconnection from God that creates a disconnection from oneself and from others. That disconnection consists of a determination to take care of oneself in the face of a disappointing and sometimes assaulting world.” (47)
“Success in therapy depends on the therapist’s ability to convey to the patient that he cares, is competent to help, and has no ulterior motive.” (quoting Jerome Frank, a leading figure in the field of therapy research, 48)
The underlying problem: “Spiritual people love. They have the wisdom to understand whatever is getting in the way of the Spirit’s working, and their motivation is not self-serving. They live to advance the kingdom for God’s glory. But spiritual community is rare. That’s why we have professionals. And rather than identifying our lack of spiritual community as a huge problem needing attention, we have tried to handle our problems in unspiritual community. In doing so, we offer only congenial, cooperative, consoling, counseling, and conforming relationships to people in conflict.” (49)
“Conflicts arise when people have opposing agendas, competing agendas where something deeply personal is at stake.” (50)
Crabb says we can move back and forth between an Upper (spiritual) Room and a Lower (fleshly) Room. “The world outside the Upper Room still has white beaches and dirty ghettos. But from the Upper Room they seem like shadows. New cars and cancer surgery and beautiful grandchildren and terrible rejection are still present, but now they are all second things. First things are all in the Upper Room.
“When someone leaves the Upper Room, the shadows gain substance, second things become first, and the person who was solid as long as he stayed in that room now becomes a ghost. Leaving the Upper Room always means entering the Lower Room, trying once again to manage the difficulties of life, and every day becoming less and less substantial—more of a ghost than a solid person.” (65)
“People in the Lower Room sometimes live there quite happily for a long time. They see no value in brokenness and radical trust because their own resources are keeping life together quite well.” (65)
“It’s easy to lose sight (sometimes never to gain it) of how bad we are.” (84)
“I’ve learned to be wary right after a good spiritual experience. I tend to feel more vulnerable then to temptation that, at other times, I easily resist.” (86)
“Postmodernism didn’t introduce the idea of abolishing absolute truth and law, it only dignified it, or tried to. Now it’s immoral to honor any authority outside of ourselves.” (93)
“In spiritual community, people participate in dialogue: They share without manipulation, they listen without prejudice, they decide without self-interest.” (95)
“The world thinks men are good and saints are better. Pascal knows men are sinners and saints are miracles.—Peter Kreeft” (105)
Four Furnishings of Our Upper Room: a passion to worship, a passion to trust, a passion to grow, and a passion to obey. (106)
What God promises: a new purity, a new identity, a new inclination (to want to be good), and a new power. (109)
The tasks of spiritual community: to provide a safe place, to envision what the Spirit can do, to discern flesh vs. spirit dynamics, and to “pour what is alive in each of us into the other….” (118)
Convictions required to make progress in spiritual community: 1) it is the Spirit’s work; 2) our choices have a far greater impact on other people’s lives than we suspect; and 3) every bad desire is a corruption of good desire and every good desire is a meager expression of our deepest desire: to know God. (125)
“We best promote another’s holiness by pursuing our own. Our private choices affect the kind of influence we have on people.” (128)
“Self-esteem—what the therapeutic culture often means by that term and what it assumes is necessary for emotional health—is more a hearty weed to be pulled out of the human personality than a fragile flower to nourish. Our strategies to preserve and enhance the self reflect the godless energy of people who are determined, at all cost, to find themselves, without yielding center stage to Christ. It cannot be done. The effort should not be encouraged.
“When holy passions come out of one person into another, the effect is not to make us more convinced merely of our own value. It is to honor the reality of Christ in us and all He has done that no one else could ever do.” (135)
“In our Lower Room, we are passionate for self. We don’t worship God; we try to use Him, then angrily dismiss Him when He proves unhelpful. That’s sin.” (136)
“The only way to deal with people’s problems is to weaken the grip Lower Room passions have on them.” “They can only be experienced as weaker when Upper Room passions are aroused and fanned into a bonfire.” This can happen in true spiritual community. (141)
“The starting point for spiritual community is not learning and practicing relational skills. It is relating with God, drawing near to Him….” (148)
“Spiritual community is at once the safest place on earth and the place of greatest danger.” It eventually exposes our futile attempts to fill the gaping hole in our hearts. (154)
Steps to spiritual community:
Start with prayer. Foundational convictions: growth is a mystery; personal holiness counts for more than trained skill; every felt desire is, at root, a longing for God. (167-8)
“Training without character does no good.” Character without training does great good, and character plus training might add a little. (167)
“We never create a desire for God in anyone; we rather see that it’s already there in His children and stir it up.” (168)
The process of spiritual community:
“1. We enter each other’s lives with celebration and with the message: I accept you!
“2. We see what’s beneath the surface, what could be and what is, both good and bad. We communicate the message: I believe in you and I discern both the Spirit’s work and the work of the flesh in your life.
“3. We touch each other with the life of Christ; we freely give whatever the Spirit incites within us as we get to know each other. Our message is: I give you whatever the Spirit stirs me to give you.” (169-70)